In the Shadow of the Noonday Gun

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Mary Hui talks to Mike Smith about the seedy days under Hong Kong’s colonial rule as he basks in the success of his debut, In the Shadow of the Noonday Gun

Across the roaring river of cars on Gloucester Road, away from the frenzied rumble of Causeway Bay and out by the waterfront along Victoria Harbour sits the Noonday Gun. At 12pm each day, the gun is fired and, with it, you’re brought hurtling back to Hong Kong’s colonial past. It’s been 15 years since the sun set on the British colonial rule here – but the memories endure. And Mike Smith, author of In the Shadow of the Noonday Gun, gives some shape to the seedier parts of those days in his debut tome. “The Noonday Gun is really a play on the ‘shadow’ part,” says Smith. “To me the gun represents Hong Kong’s establishment. I’m trying to tell human stories in the shadows of the establishment – the other side, as it were.” This is not the official record or the textbook account of Hong Kong’s colonial past. This is the real thing: an insider’s exposé of the gritty details, an unmasking of a reality that has – until now – been kept under wraps to all but the most probing eyes. “I’ve tried to capture the flavour of the times with a selection of stories covering colonial Hong Kong and its transition to China,” says Smith.

There’s perhaps no-one better positioned to tell these tales than Smith. His roots in Hong Kong reach back over three generations. His grandfather served as a captain with the Hong Kong Volunteers during the Second World War. His Hong Kong-born father was a lieutenant with the same regiment. Smith himself joined the Royal Hong Kong Police Force at 19 years old, working mostly with the Crime Investigation Unit. There, the shadows opened up to him, he says. “As every daily journalist knows,” writes author and South China Morning Post columnist Jake van der Kamp in support of the book, “for the best stories in town, turn to the police – and nowhere more so than in old Hong Kong.”

In his five years with the police force, Smith opened up a Pandora’s box of the city’s intrigues. And plenty of his tales are in this book. A collection of 16 stories takes readers on a whirlwind tour of the life, crime and backrooms of big businesses in colonial Hong Kong’s closing decades. “I would like to think that it’s a Hong Kong novel,” says Smith. “The shape of it is rather more like a restaurant tasting menu than a full meal.” And though the tasting menu is an explosion of flavours, running through it all is a central theme: “It’s all about telling one story – the old colonial Hong Kong transferring to the new.”

Like a surgeon with clinical precision, Smith’s no frills, no-nonsense approach – what he refers to as ‘economy of writing’ – lays bare unsparingly all the secrets lurking in the shadows. There’s no glut of adjectives but nor is there a dearth of the perfect word. The stories read with the detached impartiality of a police report but are richly coloured with just the right phrases. We learn of the media’s ‘public piss-taking’. We’re told there were very few ‘straightforward bars to drink in’ and, suggestively, ‘Gentlemen for Hire’ closely follows ‘The Lady’. In between the exquisite opium pipes, shadowy double-deals and sex, we discover another side of Hong Kong.

For Smith, the book’s success – it’s already topped Dymock’s bestsellers list over the past few weeks – is promising. “It does encourage me to write another,” he says. “There may be a sequel or an expansion of one particular story.” We hope to see both. Soon. 

In the Shadow of the Noonday Gun is published by Windsor, priced $158.

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